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Wisdom in Practice

An open letter to Chris Billows responding to his blog-letter Modern Philosophy and its Loss of Wisdom at The Journals of Doc Surge as part of the Republic of Bloggers. Further replies welcome!

TreebulbDear Chris,

It is a source of some consternation to me that philosophy has as its original meaning ‘love of wisdom’, whilst many philosophers today are more interested in being smart than in being wise. Indeed, some seem to doubt that there is any meaning to the term ‘wisdom’. But to reason from this conclusion to a complete absence of wisdom in philosophy would be manifestly unjust.

I must thank you once again for writing to me. At a time when blogging feels less like a community practice and more akin to cooking a feast only to flush it immediately down the toilet, I especially treasure the discourse I have with those who commit to actually communicating – with me, or with anyone! Your argument consists of two parts: a blanket indictment of philosophy, and a pep rally for psychology. Pragmatically, I must focus here on the defence of philosophy. The main thing I will say about psychology is that you have rather cherry-picked your examples and thus demonstrated what psychologists call selection bias. An examination of psychology’s merits and missteps will have to await another occasion.

Your most general complaint – that many philosophers have parted company with wisdom – is a perspective we share. But you wish to make this an accusation against philosophy as a discipline. This I cannot support, since it was philosophers who gave me my clearest awareness of the problems in question. The core of your argument is that philosophy is excessively cognitive, to which I impishly reply: “Aye, hallelujah! Finally a field by nerds and for nerds!” But then, the same is largely true of the sciences, most definitely including psychology. The sciences, however, have largely lost the reflective qualities of philosophy because, sadly, Einstein’s generation of scientists were the last to accept that philosophy was an essential part of their job requirements. Ever since, the desire has been (as with Jonathan Haidt) to demolish any platform for philosophy as a discipline, which is an incoherent objective since we all must either conduct philosophy or be bound unknowingly to the philosophy of others.

To mount a complaint against philosophy upon the basis of it being ‘too cognitive’ seems like a misdiagnosis. Philosophy is a cognitive practice; its excellences are of the mind. You would hardly complain of sport that it was ‘too physical’! The real question here isn’t the core nature of the practices being exercised but the way those practices are integrated into lives and societies. Here, I feel, is the root of a genuine problem, and it is one that you accurately link to modern philosophy i.e. philosophy since Descartes. But Descartes’ philosophy didn't come from nowhere. This problem goes back in one form or another to the ancient Greeks. It is not by accident that Alfred North Whitehead characterised the history of European philosophy as “a series of footnotes to Plato.”

It is important at this point to separate influence from blame. Plato and Aristotle could not have remotely guessed at the consequences of their philosophy millennia later, and were far more interested in the more immediate fate of the Hellenic city states of which they were citizens. Still, it is Plato that gives us the roots of the rigid objectivity that you mistakenly attribute to all philosophy (and seem to overlook in the context of the sciences). His allegory of the cave presents clearly this idea that the philosopher is able to get outside of the local conditions of life, see ‘the truth’, then return to local life with the truths in question safely packed away like a sandwich. This metaphysical view gets taken up into Christianity (Plato’s followers’ fingerprints are all over the Gospel of John), and from there gives birth to the entire range of modern sciences, including psychology. Bruno Latour points out that today it is the scientist who is credited with this power to magically collect the truth, which loses none of its problems after being exported from philosophy.

However, this account is an incomplete story since it ignores the fact that for the majority of Christianity’s time on our planet it was Aristotle, not Plato, that was its major philosophical influence. It is only the rise of the sciences, and hence of positivism, that put Plato in ascendance and Aristotle in decline. I will not say that what was taken from Aristotle in the Middle Ages was as good as it could be, but I will say that in contemporary ethics (at the very least) the philosophical descendants of Aristotle – primarily the virtue ethicists – are the most embodied, situated, and generally un-Platonic of the voices within that particular discipline.

When you paint a picture of breaking away from monolithic truth into pluralistic happiness, you seem to make two questionable judgements. Firstly, in equating the former with the church you obscure the fact that Christians – including philosophers like Kant and Kierkegaard – were the driving force in these cosmopolitan movements, at least until the twentieth century. It is precisely because the kind of pluralism we currently have can trace its lineage to Plato through Christianity that plurality has become more of a moral problem than we usually recognise (a topic I pursue in Chaos Ethics). But still, let’s not forget that Christians were part of the solution to absolutism, as well as part of the original problem.

Secondly, you equate pluralism with happiness. Yet pluralism is not in itself a source of happiness, and its only plausible merit is in defending a diversity of paths towards happiness. But we are not happy today, and greater pluralism is not able to make us happy without a substantial overhaul of what that is taken to mean. This, once again, is a task for philosophy, which is not to suggest philosophers have anything like exclusive authority over it. We certainly don't! But some of us like to think we could help, at the very least.

You also raise the question of emotion in philosophy. This is very much a live issue in the discipline, as a glance at any summary of this topic will show. Neither is this situation new: up until the Victorian mobilisation of the sciences, talk of “the passions” (as then known) had a central role in the work of almost everyone in philosophy. Then we outsourced this work to psychology in ‘the divorce’ (when philosophy and psychology became separate fields), with decidedly mixed results.

Nonetheless, the majority of the philosophers who inspire me are those whose work intersects with their lived experiences and which could not be mistaken for coldly objective – people like Alasdair MacIntyre, Mary Midgely, Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, or even your countryman Charles Taylor, who very honourably attempted a career in politics so that he might have a chance to put his philosophy into practice. All of these philosophers, along with Ivan Illich (who inspired Taylor) argue against narrowly conceived notions of expertise and the unquestioned authority of experts, and many (particularly Rancière) are keen to resist the idea that distant intellectualism is what will help solve social problems. I might add that Badiou and Midgley are influenced by Plato, whose work is far more complex and nuanced than even I give credit. As ever, the realities of the situation are never as simple as they seem from the outside.

Philosophy is intelligence in theory and wisdom in practice. It can seem to be a coldly cerebral activity, but only if you mistake its theoretical and conceptual skills for its application. Philosophers make many mistakes, because they are fundamentally human – much like scientists. Unlike scientists, however, philosophers are frequently keen that the mistakes they make as humans are explored, rather than hidden behind veils such as blind peer review and faith in objectivity. Wittgenstein in particular was fascinated by our deeply human foibles, and in his later work became concerned that his own ideas would be ignored because of the generally positivistic bent of the time. He was wrong, as it happened: his philosophy significantly influenced psychology.

When philosophers fail in practice, it is usually because they have misunderstood which practices they are embedded in. Many, for instance, are still trying to debug Kant's astonishing attempt to bring about peace through international cosmopolitanism. I fear the attempt to deploy wisdom at the level of the State is now doomed because at that scale wisdom is fundamentally impossible. To escape this trap requires philosophical revolutions of the kind philosophers, artists, and those blessed by a certain madness undertake. Perhaps you will consider joining us?

With love and respect,


Why not share your perspective? I’d love to hear from you, whomever you might be!


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